The political crisis in Venezuela seems to be heading for a crucial showdown after the country's National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the opposition had collected enough signatures to force a recall referendum on the rule of president Hugo Chávez.
The CNE set the date for the referendum as 15 August. The council's vice-president, Ezequiel Zamora, who is accused by many of sympathising with the opposition, said that elections would follow in 30 days if Chávez lost. Were the referendum to take place after 19 August, and if Chávez did lose, Venezuelan vice-president José Vincente Rangel would take over without holding new elections.
Chávez addressed the nation, accepting the CNE's preliminary results and congratulating the opposition for finding a democratic and constitutional way to try to oust him. His opponents, who accuse him of everything from insanity to being a Castro-style communist dictator, have already attempted to remove him from power by means of an unsuccessful coup in April 2002 and a two-month general strike in December 2002.
The Venezuelan constitution, passed into law by referendum in December 1999, emphasises participation at all levels and incorporates a series of articles that enable ordinary citizens to have a direct influence over public affairs. Crucially, article 72 states that "all elected posts", from the president down, can be subjected to a recall referendum after officials reach the midway point of their term in office. This point was reached by Chávez on 19 August 2003.
It is ironic that the opposition has turned to Chávez's new constitution in its latest strategy to bring down his government, given that in the past it has labelled the framework undemocratic. Meanwhile, international observers from the Organization of American States and the human rights organisation the Carter Center congratulated Venezuelans for exercising their democratic rights. The run-up to the referendum promises to be a real test for the opposition's democratic credentials.
The process of gathering the required signatures to trigger this referendum has been an explosive saga in itself, lasting almost a year. When 3.4 million signatures were handed in by the opposition in November 2003, the government contested the veracity of a large proportion of them, complaining that many had been obtained through fraud such as the inclusion of deceased people.
At the time Chávez called the whole process a "mega fraude". The CNE validated only 1.9 million signatures, and required the owners of those disputed to confirm their support for the referendum. In the end, according to the latest results released by the CNE, the opposition was able to validate only 2,451,821 signatures - about a million less than it had originally submitted.
For the opposition to win the referendum it must achieve more votes against Chávez than those obtained by him when he was elected president in December 1998. Then, Chávez swept the traditional parties out of office with 3,750,000 votes - 56 per cent of the total.
Thus, in the referendum this August, the opposition will need to obtain more than a million extra votes to defeat Chávez through the ballot box. This appears unlikely, given the popularity of Chávez among the poor, who make up more than 80 per cent of the Venezuelan population.
Among the many charges directed at Chávez by his opponents, both domestic and international, is that his government is undemocratic. It is hard, however, to imagine Tony Blair or George Bush agreeing to a similar referendum half way through their time in office - a time when governments are usually at their least popular.
US hypocrisy in this respect is brought into sharp focus by the recent revelation that the National Endowment for Democracy (funded by the US Congress) provided close to $1m to fund opposition groups in the months before Venezuela's failed coup of April 2002. The US's contempt for democracy in the region is nothing new for Latin Americans, as Chileans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Grenadians and Brazilians can readily testify.
Even if Chávez were to win the referendum, it would be wrong to assume that the opposition will accept the result and allow him to conclude his term in office. Past experience in Latin America, as with Allende's Chile in 1973, suggests that right-wing elites will use legal or illegal means to overthrow a government that threatens their privileges.
Domestically, a high level of responsibility will have to be shown by both sides to prevent an incendiary political situation from turning into full-scale civil war in Venezuela. Foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the country should be actively opposed by people throughout the world in order to prevent it joining the long list of Latin American governments deposed through US-sponsored military action.
Pablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)